Appreciating the luxury of travel and adventure – living a simple life on an African research station.

Today I was reminded of another very different time in a very different place, but where day to day life had a few similarities to my current life at tinyvan basecamp . How it all came about is a bit of a long story but to keep it brief, some years ago I was extremely fortunate to be in one of those ‘right place at the right time’ moments and got the opportunity to work as a research assistant volunteer in East Africa…..I know….as you do, right!

Our off-grid ‘Basecamp’ in the Maasai Mara along with regular visitors to the garden!

My basic and very limited OU online study of Mammal Biology and Marine Biology ( which bagged me a different adventure, but that’s for another time!) had paid off and bluffed up enough to get me in that ‘right place’ and, along with my eager willingness to do any unpaid mundane or repetitive chore, was enough to secure a place with a couple of other similarly poorly qualified wildlife enthusiasts at the ‘right time’ to assist a Danish scientist with the observation phase of his human- wildlife conflict study in the TransMara region on both sides of the Maasai Mara game reserve boundary in Kenya, East Africa. There’s an awful lot to the study but that’s not what this blog post is about so it’s suffice to say our main task at that point was finding and following particular lion prides and monitoring their behaviour over two separate, four hour periods per day. As the lions sometimes took a bit of finding, plus a fair distance might be travelled over rough terrain from our base and there were also other activities involved our days were generally split into four periods with at least half the time tracking and monitoring the lions and half the time at base usually sleeping for two four-hour periods as we would be out during the night too.

Discovering the secret life of lions….mostly it involves sleeping!

Already I am digressing and you might be thinking this doesn’t sound anything remotely like how my current day to day living could possibly be but let me explain why this experience came to mind today.

Transport was often in chairs on the vehicle roof occasionally along rough roads but mostly completely off-road and the road signage wasn’t always clear!

Our base was remote and very basic. A few simple buildings comprised a couple of offices and equipment stores and accommodation in simple rooms with concrete floors and wobbly wooden window frames. There was a nearby water tank from which a gravity fed pipe ran a fairly reliable trickle of water to the ‘kitchen’ for washing, cold showers and cooking. We had to bring in the drinking water for the western stomachs in our small group so the stash of 20 litre, refillable bottles stacked against the wall were a prized possession and not a drop was wasted. A trip to the supermarket for a ‘big shop’ in Nairobi, a 10 hour hot and dusty round trip, was a mission in itself and was made only once a month so a certain amount of stockpiling was necessary, planning ahead a month of meals became a ritual and in the beginning I was very guilty of my own bit of chocolate biscuit panic buying! There was the occasional opportunity to visit a small settlement at the Sekenani gate just a few miles away from the research station which, at that time, had a rickety wooden shack serving the local community with luxuries such as batteries, toilet rolls and Cadburys Fudge Bars! Planning meals, rationing supplies and making the ‘big shop’ all became a much bigger part of life than it ever was in my comfortable flat in north west England where a supermarket and two local stores provided almost round the clock access to food and provisions within 500m of my home, not to mention a local high street crammed with shops that could supply me on a daily basis with an easy and endless stream of stuff I didn’t really need. Right now, at lockdown Basecamp, I am rediscovering the simple enjoyment of not having access to everything I might think I need, savouring and appreciating the things I do have, getting creative with meal plans and planning a restocking run to a supermarket every 10 days or so like a military style operation! However, I am suffering from a near future shortage of toilet roll, and I haven’t had a Cadburys’ Fudge since 2006!

A typical teenage get together

Another fact of life on the research base was a lack of freedom of movement and exercise. Despite having the whole Maasai Mara as my back garden, it would be reckless and irresponsible to wander off into it on foot. The water tank was situated a few hundred metres away and if we needed to check on it it was standard procedure to go with another person, during main daylight hours, with no lingering on route and always keeping a sharp 360° lookout for dangers. Lions, leopards, buffalo, stroppy young male elephants, a feisty bunch of hyena, snakes and baboons and a whole array of small stuff were among some of the potentially awkward encounters. Social distancing from other animals was absolutely imperative and if that wasn’t a lot lot further than two metres then you were likely to pick up something pretty nasty indeed! On more than one occasion some of the group were caught out when the vehicle we were normally confined to on any trip out of camp broke down, as it had an equally annoying and alarming tendency to do, and stumbled on some buffalo while trying to sneak back to camp after dark, this usually resulted in a couple of hours sitting in a tree out of reach until the buffalo forgot about them and moved on. Going out on foot was not something you just did lightly! Even the ever present little vervet monkeys shielded indoors with us when a troop of baboons passed by just metres from the front door (or at least they would have given half the chance, as they were incredibly ingenious at finding ways of breaking in and trying to steal our rations – if they made it to the veg basket a vervet monkey could devour an onion as if it were an apple in seconds.)

Buffalo : Very best to be avoided if on foot….can be seriously cranky!
A wild land of incredible wildlife

We were also surrounded by ever present health concerns other than the obvious damage that could be caused by a disgruntled buffalo. Amongst other viruses, the population lived with the constant risk of contracting malaria and in a similar reaction to the way in which people in a  supermarket aisle might dramatically scatter if you started coughing today, every time I sneezed it was a crowd stopper and a helpful person would advise me to seek a doctor as I might have malaria, though most likely it was just a bit of hayfever! These were usually jovial exchanges but it showed the constant threat of disease that people lived with on a day to day basis.

Unexpected danger when a huge wildfire swept through area

Despite busy periods there was also a lot of downtime when the lead scientist had to go away or the rangers had time off to visit their families and nothing was happening. Isolated on the station and without the usual distractions – no internet, TV or BBC iPlayer – time was spent quietly enjoying many hours gazing over the scenery, watching wildlife pass by or witnessing the occasional confrontation play out close to camp. There was time to enjoy grand African sunsets and sunrises, learn to get creative cooking with basic facilities, work on a bit of simple building maintenance, do laundry in a bucket, write a journal, read, and even sew clothing by hand, which I might add is an incredibly slow endeavour. My days are spent in a similar way now, as life settles into a calm routine, I spend time that I never could find before to read, write, draw and get in touch with friends. I have a new ritual each evening preparing a hot chocolate with just a smidgen of rum to enjoy while watching the sun set on another day in our new reality. My wildlife encounters here at tinyvan basecamp are limited mostly to the ‘big game’ entertainment from the Shetland ponies in my charge and the occasional glimpse of the tail end of the resident mole who, if his building work is anything to go by, has quite the sizeable estate constructed beneath camp. On the research station at dusk, you could almost set your watch by the bats that would pour out of the cavity in the walls of the buildings to take flight every evening and now I find myself watching the similarly ‘like clockwork’ busy evening commute of birds back to somewhere southwest of me that I can only assume is a local reservoir watering hole.

Learning how to make THE best chapatis from Mama Sheila
There were many projects to get involved with – this was for a visitor centre on the Kenyan coast.

Another aspect of the self sufficiency of research station life was a lack of electricity. I know most of us in these lockdown times have mains resources but here at my tinyvan basecamp I am without any utilities and my usual back up procedure of plugging in a power pack over a couple of cappuccinos at Costa coffee is no longer available. As, like my time on the station, I am once again reliant on limited resources, only gaining power when the sun is shining, and therefore exercising consideration to my use of devices and such. With no possibility of Netflix marathons unless we have a heatwave I reduce my use of devices relative to available resources. Again, I do enjoy this sense of rationing and appreciate ‘movie night’ all the more for it, particularly if I can manage to pop some corn on my rocket stove! At the research station we had a generator which was rationed to two hours per evening mostly for the scientists equipment to be recharged. For reasons I never figured out the generator was in a small outbuilding situated some distance from camp and at the end of the evening one of the armed KWS Rangers would have the short straw of making the short trips in the dark to turn it off. As we retired to our beds we always knew he had made it there as the lights gently dimmed and faded out but we never knew for sure if he had made it back until we were relieved to see him again at breakfast. There was always at least one ranger onsite and it was strictly their job only to fulfil this task and they would not allow anyone else to go on their behalf. Because of this we quite often decided to go without the electricity unless it was necessary for the equipment. On those evenings I’m sure I heard a sigh of relief from the designated ranger as we all sat around a blazing campfire closeby, enjoying a prized beer from the dwindling supplies until running the gauntlet of the next ‘big shop’.

The unmissable daily show…

 

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